The View From Pluto: The Other All-Star Game is a Testament to Ken Babby's Belief in Akron
Tonight, baseball’s future stars take the spotlight in Akron, as the RubberDucks host the AA Eastern League All-Star game at Canal Park. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto says hosting the event is a compliment to the organization that’s undergone a complete transformation in the last three years.
Canal Park opened in downtown Akron in 1997 and Pluto describes it as a mini Jacob's Field where their major league-affiliate Indians play, now called Progressive Field.
A tired stadium
Pluto describes what it was like to attend a game in 2012, shortly before the new owner began the transformation.
"The scoreboard, part of it was out. Part of it was flickering. [The stadium] just had this tired look about it, faded purple color scheme."
A new owner
At that time, the then-Akron Aeros had been for sale for a few years and the longtime owners stopped putting any money into the facility.
Then, Ken Babby shows up. He's in his mid 30's and spent 13 years in different executive roles at The Washington Post. His father, Lon, has been president of basketball operations for the NBA Phoenix Suns since 2010.
Babby started shopping around for a minor league team to buy. He heard that the Aeros were for sale. "He spent a good part of 2012 living in Montrose, going to the games just to get a feel to see if he wanted to invest in this," Pluto says.
He decided he did and in 2012, Babby bought the Aeros. "But you realize, you just bought a distressed property," Pluto says. Since then, Babby has invested close to $7 million into Canal Park, including "a brand new scoreboard, painting everything and deep cleaning the whole ballpark," Pluto says.
And Pluto says Babby, who's from Maryland, took the right approach in hiring his general manager and public relations director. "He hired two very experienced people who had Akron roots."
The birth of the RubberDucks
Pluto says the Akron Aeros name was tied to an outer space theme. "No one could spell it; no one knew why it was!" So, Babby right away launched a rebranding effort.
"They went through a bunch of names like the Canal Rats, which Babby liked. But then he realized it gave a bad image of the city. He liked the Tire Jacks, which I kinda didn’t get either…but they started working with the Rubber theme, for the Rubber City. The city actually did make rubber ducks at one time," Pluto says.
So, the RubberDucks it was.
Pluto says Babby was surprised there wasn't more of a backlash about the name change; the owner said it lasted just a few days. But, the minor leagues are known for some bizarre team names -- the Fresno Tacos, the Lansing Lugnuts, Hartford YardGoats.
A renewed fan interest
Pluto says the fun names and promotions are standards in minor league baseball. But he says he was curious how this would all play out when the team was fading from interest in Akron.
So, he looked at the attendance numbers. In 2012, Akron drew 265,743 fans -- the lowest since it opened at Canal Park in 1997. In the first three years of Babby's ownership, attendance has been:
He says this year, they are pace to draw more than 350,000. It's a far cry from the 1990's when the ballpark opened. "The economy was good, there was a novelty to it. They were drawing 500,000, just like when the Indians were selling out every game."
The city did put some money into the field and some of these things but a lot of the main additions on the stadium, the ownership of the team paid for that. That's been a thing to help endear people here too, is rather than saying, 'Well I'm going to buy the team and you've got to do all the things to the park for me. And the before and after pictures a lot of times tell the story, and they do.
"The Eastern League isn't going to go to some place they think they can't sell a ticket and the ballpark looks sad and nobody is going to come. So it was basically a way of throwing a valentine to Ken and his staff, saying, 'You guys have done a good job and Akron is back to being a good baseball city once again.'"